A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this long (140 minutes) drama is based on the true story of a college graduate who decided to live off the grid for more than two years, culminating in a fatal four-month solo journey to the Alaskan backcountry. The tragic nature of his death might be too heavy a theme for younger kids, but teens -- some of whom may read the best-seller on which the film is based in school -- could be drawn to the story of a young man who seeks beauty and truth. There's some language (including "f--k") and social drinking, some bare breasts, a non-sexual glimpse of star Emile Hirsch's penis as he floats naked in a river, and another fleeting shot of a couple making love (no sensitive body parts shown).
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What's the story?
Based on Jon Krakauer's nonfiction best-seller Into the Wild, Sean Penn's adaptation martyrs Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) as an intelligent, idealistic, 24-year-old college graduate who gives his trust fund to Oxfam, burns the remainder of his cash, and takes off on an extended journey into the wilderness. Chris makes a life-changing impression on everyone he meets, including two hippies (Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker); a grain elevator foreman (Vince Vaughn); a 16-year-old folk singer (Kristen Stewart); and, most touchingly, a lonely elderly man (Hal Holbrook). Despite the seemingly deep human connections he fosters throughout his tramping days, Chris is single-mindedly focused on one goal: getting to Alaska and living off the land for a few months all by himself. In fact, he arrives there early in the film, camping out in a "magic" bus that had been parked long ago as a crude base camp; flashbacks fill in the two years leading up to that point. The back-and-forth between Chris' days in Alaska and his time as Alexander the hitchhiker is effective, poignantly reminding the viewer of the kind of big-hearted man he could have resumed being had he been able to walk back out of the wilderness.
Is it any good?
Whether or not you agree with the accuracy of the portrayal, it's fascinating -- beautiful, even -- to see a young man embark on his own hero's journey. Every performance in Penn's film is noteworthy. Hirsch, who's in practically every scene of the two-and-a-half-hour film, gives a startling, career-high performance--he fully embodies Chris. The excellent soundtrack features several songs by Eddie Vedder. But one of the most impressive triumphs of the movie is its gorgeous cinematography. The "simple beauty" Chris so cherishes in nature is perfectly captured. Even in his final moments (at least in the film), Chris -- now starved and emaciated -- has nature's beauty to comfort him. If only he could have told his story himself.
In real life, the cult of Christopher McCandless has little meaning to critics (mostly Alaskan) who believe that the idealistic 24-year-old wanderer basically committed suicide. Those who don't consider McCandless praiseworthy probably won't enjoy this film adaptation.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about whether knowing Chris' fate ahead of time affects the impact of the movie. If so, how? If not, why? Are movies based on real lives/true stories more interesting than those that are pure fiction? Families can also discuss how you feel about Chris after watching the movie. What honorable/admirable things did he accomplish? How did he impact the people he came to know on the road? On the other hand, did he treat his parents and sister fairly? Should he have contacted his family?
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